Opens with renewed commitment to improving state’s business climate, public schools
Members of the North Carolina Senate returned to Raleigh Wednesday to begin the 2017-2018 legislative session.
Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) was unanimously re-elected by his colleagues to serve a fourth term as President Pro Tempore, the chamber’s leader.
Berger highlighted the legislature’s tremendous progress over the past six years to help revitalize North Carolina’s economy, strengthen the state’s fiscal health, cut taxes, and dramatically increase teacher pay. But he made clear there is more to be done. Berger urged lawmakers to work together and renew their commitment to improving North Carolina’s public schools and its climate for business and job creation during the upcoming session.
Below are his opening remarks as prepared:
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for that wonderful, warm welcome.
“And thank you to my colleagues for once again putting your confidence and trust in me to serve as President Pro Tempore of the North Carolina Senate. I am humbled and honored, and I look forward to working alongside you to continue strengthening our state.
“I would like to take a moment to recognize a few people who are with us today:
“First, my family – my wife, Pat; my sons, Phil Jr. and Kevin and his wife, Amber; my daughter, Ashley and her husband, Josh; my grandchildren Philip III, Will, Jackson, and Emily – who just made her grandfather so proud with the remarkable job she did singing our National Anthem. The unwavering support of my family is appreciated more than they will ever know;
“North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin;
“Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest;
“And the Army Junior ROTC Color Guard from John Motley Morehead High School in my hometown of Eden.
“Today is a day to celebrate the call to public service.
“After reviewing each candidate’s platform, millions went to the polls this past November and elected the members of this chamber to represent their communities and to be their voices in state government. With that comes tremendous responsibility, and a duty to work hard and remain laser-focused on fulfilling the promises you made.
“And boy, will you work hard.
“While we are technically a part-time legislature, you all know – or will soon find out – there is nothing ‘part-time’ about being a state senator. It will require a steadfast commitment to put the best interests of your neighbors, your community and your state above yourself.
“You will devote long, hard hours at the legislature most days for the next several months – away from your families, neighbors and the comforts of home.
“For most of you, you will somehow have to find time to fulfill the obligations of your regular full-time job to support your family.
“And when you finally reach the end of your work week here, you will likely spend your weekends engaged in your communities and attending civic events. There will be little to no time for rest.
“Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the people who make all of this possible. To the families of our members, the sacrifice you make in sharing your loved ones for countless hours every week does not go unnoticed. Without a strong support network at home, our members simply could not do what they do. Thank you for your contribution to our state.
“There’s no question it takes a special group of people – and I’ll leave it to you to define special – to sign up for this job. But it’s worth it in the end. Please allow me to share my perspective as to why, in spite of these challenges, so many continue to sign up for this work.
“We come back because we’ve seen the fruits of our efforts. We know what is done here can make a positive and meaningful difference in lives of our fellow North Carolinians.
“Just six short years ago, our state faced a double-digit unemployment rate – the fifth highest in the entire country.
“Now, due in large part to difficult decisions made by the legislature, our unemployment rate has fallen by half, and North Carolina is creating jobs faster than the rest of the United States.
“North Carolina once struggled with stagnant job growth and declining family incomes.
“Now a thriving economy has generated more than 450,000 new jobs. The number of working North Carolinians has soared to historic highs, and median household income has jumped by close to $10,000 per household.
“Our state and its private sector economic engine was once burdened with the highest taxes in the southeast and one of the worst tax climates in the nation.
“Now, as a result of our nationally-recognized tax cuts and tax reform, North Carolina businesses and citizens pay billions of dollars less in taxes. Our state now boasts the best tax climate in the region and the 11th best nationally – but there is still more work to do.
“We were once weighed down by record budget deficits and billions of dollars in debt to the federal government.
“Now balanced budgets and controlled spending, along with a growing economy, have yielded consecutive years of budget surpluses. Our debt to the federal government is paid in full.
“Public schools were once struggling with declining state support. Thousands of state-funded teaching positions were eliminated, teachers were furloughed and their pay was frozen.
“Now state funding for our public schools has reached record levels. New teachers have been hired, and average teacher pay has climbed above $50,000 for the first time in state history.
“When we assumed the majority in January 2011, our state’s rainy day fund was depleted.
“Now, as we saw with the swift response to recent natural disasters, we are well-prepared for emergencies and downturns, with more than $1.5 billion in the state savings reserve.
“There is no question that due to the hard work and perseverance of the public servants in this building and their supportive families, our state has made a dramatic turnaround. It’s working toward these kind of positive changes – that help make North Carolina the best state to build a business and the best state to live and raise a family – that brings so many of us back year after year.
“And even though our role offers the privilege and responsibility to implement broad policy changes that affect millions, sometimes the most rewarding part of the job is the opportunity to help just one person – to provide constituent services and help our neighbors solve their real world problems, one at a time:
“By helping children get to the right schools or educational programs to meet their unique needs;
“By helping sick constituents contact the proper officials to obtain the care they need;
“By helping families pursuing an adoption cut through government red tape;
“By helping people resolve drainage and other problems resulting from road work on or near their properties; and
“By expediting assistance from the federal government with VA issues, passports and other needs.
“Perhaps there is no better example of the problems we can solve when we work together than the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Sen. Ford and Sen. Smith-Ingram, just to name a couple, I commend your efforts to help supply power, housing and medical supplies to those affected by the floods, and it was an honor for my office to assist in some small way.
“What many don’t realize is the lion’s share of what we work on in these halls is not controversial. Most laws pass with overwhelming, bipartisan support. No matter what our political party, we are all here because we want our state to thrive, and for our citizens to reach their full potential. It is disheartening that some only want to focus on what divides us – what draws in the most campaign contributions, what attracts the most free press attention, what is sensational enough to sell the most newspapers and TV advertisements.
“Members, as we consider the task ahead at the start of this legislative session, let us remember all that we can accomplish when we work together. And let us remember all that can be achieved as we continue down this new path for our state and labor to fulfill the promises we made to our constituents.
“In the coming session, we’ll maintain the budgeting and spending discipline, and the commitment to pro-growth tax policies, that have helped return our state to good fiscal health.
“Let me be clear: we will not, under any circumstances, return to the failed tax and spend policies of the past that gave us the mess we inherited in 2011.
“We’ll continue to look for ways to reduce the tax burden on families, small businesses, and other job creators, helping them keep more of their own money.
“We’ll continue efforts to reform and improve public education for our students and have already committed to raising average teacher pay to $55,000 over the next two years. We will remain focused on providing a bright future for our children and helping build a capable workforce that will attract businesses to our state.
“We’ll do even more to simplify outdated, job-killing rules and regulations and foster a better business climate, with the goal of sustaining North Carolina’s strong job growth.
“And we’ll continue building state reserves to make sure that North Carolina is well-prepared for the future.
“Colleagues, thank you again for your commitment to public service and to our great state.
“May we enjoy a collegial and productive session. May we come together to achieve positive and lasting change. And may God continue to bless this body and the people of North Carolina.”